In 1917 ordinary workers and rank and file soldiers overthrew the Tsarist autocracy that had been in power in Russia since the late 1400s. This became known as the February Revolution, but according to the Gregorian calendar (which most of the world adheres to today) it took place from 8-12 March 1917. The Julian calendar, which the Russian Empire made use of at the time, runs 13 days behind. The dates used in this article follow the latter calendar, which dates the February Revolution from 23 to 27 February 1917.[1]

Russia before the Revolution

By the 1800s a number of countries in Western Europe had already industrialised. They had rich, powerful capitalist classes and large working classes. Russia on the other hand was much more underdeveloped than countries in Western Europe at the time. Capitalist heavy industry grew slowly in Russia, and by the early 1900s it had only established itself in a handful of cities and towns in the Western part of the country. This meant that although the Russian capitalist class was growing in strength, the monarchy still held most of the power. It also meant that Russia had a relatively small working class in comparison with other European countries. The peasantry made up most of the people in Russia at the time. They lived in rural areas and worked on the land owned by landlords.

Both the working class and the peasantry were very poor. But it was the former who were most organised as a political force, since they worked together in large numbers in factories and they lived together in large numbers in the cities and towns. In 1905 workers rose up in revolution, demanding the end of the exploitative systems of Tsarism and capitalism. The 1905 Revolution was crushed by the might of the state and its army leaving Tsar Nicholas II  in power. However, after the Revolution the Tsar implemented reforms which allowed for officials to be elected to a newly established State Duma (parliament or legislative assembly). Most revolutionary parties boycotted the elections as they were not interested in partaking in a “constitutional monarchy” in which the Tsar had the final say anyway. As a result, the interests of the working class and the peasantry were not represented in the Duma. The reforms put in place after the 1905 revolution only served to politically empower the bourgeoisie, who began to make legislative decisions along with the Tsar.

In 1914 the Russian Empire entered the First World War in order to defend and advance its imperialist interests. Millions of workers and peasants were sent to fight and die in the trenches. In Russia, food supplies were repeatedly exhausted and living conditions worsened as the war effort consumed most of the resources available. The masses were told to make sacrifices for the War, but resentment quickly began to grow as it became apparent that no such requirement would be made of the nobility and the bourgeoisie.

“The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime.” (Trotsky, 1932: 16)

The five days of the February Revolution

The February Revolution began on the morning of Thursday the 23rd on International Working Women’s Day. Instead of commemorating it in the usual manner of meetings and public gatherings, women textile workers in the capital city of Petrograd[2] decided to embark on widespread strike action. Despite warnings from the leaderships of various revolutionary parties of the possible dangers of strike action, women workers took to the streets to express their anger at the deteriorating living conditions and food shortages. They sent delegates to convince the metal workers to join them, and soon enough 90 000 workers (both men and women) in Petrograd were on strike. The high levels of tension saw workers engage in running battles with police, who largely refrained from using live ammunition at this point.

By the following day (24 February) over half of Petrograd’s industrial workforce was on strike, when the simple demand for bread was to be accompanied by ever increasing cries for the fall of the Tsarist regime and the end of the War. A common feature of the protests became the almost comradely interactions between some workers and soldiers. Soldiers themselves came from either the working class or the peasantry, and they were reported to be open to approaches from the workers to discuss their common grievances. This alliance would become key to the success of the February Revolution, since the earlier 1905 Revolution saw workers crushed by the army.

On the 25th the strikes and demonstrations in Petrograd had increased in scale once again, with a reported 240 000 workers participating. Armed encounters began to ensue with police, resulting in a small number of deaths and injuries on both sides. The soldiers, however, continued to refrain from using their weaponry on the workers.

In the very early morning of the 26th a number of worker leaders were arrested. Five of them were high profile Bolsheviks. After three days of hesitating, Tsar Nicholas II had finally ordered an offensive. Soldiers were now ordered to shoot demonstrators, and in one instance they did - 40 workers were killed by a training squad of the Pavlovski regiment. In response to this atrocity, workers approached the Pavlovski barracks to demand solidarity from the other soldiers. In the evening of the 26th, soldiers from the Pavlovski regiment of the Imperial Guard mutinied in protest of the massacre carried out by their training squad. Most of the mutineers were arrested, but weapons went missing. With this, the scene was set for the final day of the Revolution.

By four in the morning on the 27th the Volynsky regiment mutinied. Soon enough a number of other regiments revolted, bringing up to 60 000 soldiers of the Petrograd Garrison over to the side of the revolution. Before nightfall, workers and revolutionary soldiers went on to take over control of most of Petrograd, encountering what turned out to be futile resistance from the police and some sections of the army along the way. Although the revolution started and was eventually completed in Petrograd, a number of other major Russian cities and towns also experienced strikes, demonstrations and the exertion of people’s control over the five days. Ultimately the revolution was conducted by ordinary workers and soldiers in a very short space of time, taking the Tsarist regime by surprise. Also caught somewhat unawares by the rapid procession of events were the leaderships of the various revolutionary parties, the Bolsheviks included. Although the February Revolution is best understood as truly a “revolution from below”, conducted and directed by ordinary working people, the groundwork for the revolution was laid by the organising efforts and agitational work of primarily the Bolsheviks. Ever since the failed attempt in 1905, worker leaders and revolutionists had been working in preparation for the “second revolution”.

After the February Revolution

The Tauride Palace was turned into the general headquarters of the revolution and went on to house the Provisional Government after Tsar Nicholas II eventually abdicated on 2 March 1917. Although the February Revolution did away with the autocracy, it was the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie that stepped into legal power in the form of the Provisional Government. But workers were organised into soviets (or workers committees) which retained a powerful political position after the February Revolution. The Provisional Government, which was constituted of socialists, liberals and aristocrats left over from the Tsarist regime’s Duma, was then overthrown by the Bolshevik party with the support of the working masses in the soviets later that year. This has become known as the October Revolution.

End Notes

[1] We have used these dates so as not to confuse the reader when talking about the February Revolution. The historical records of the revolution are all documented under the Julian Calendar. The Julian calendar was replaced with the Gregorian calendar after the "October Revolution" but historians continue to refer to the two revolutions in relation to the months in which they occurred under the old calendar.

[2] “Petrograd” was Russia’s capital city at the time. It was called “St. Petersburg” before the Tsar changed its name to “Petrograd” in 1914. “Petrograd” was then changed to “Leningrad” after the October Revolution at the end of 1917. When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991 the name was then changed back to “St. Petersburg”.

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